As a middle school teacher, I’ve always loved beginning the school year by reading Jerry Spinelli’s classic, Maniac Magee.
If know the story, you’ll remember the image of Cobble’s Knot. At one point, Jeffrey “Maniac” Magee, a young outsider who has literally “run into” the town of Two Mills in an effort to escape the cruelties of his own life, accepts the challenge to unravel a very old, tightly wound knot that has been confounding visitors to Cobble’s Pizza Parlor for years. With some patience, perseverance and a seemingly intimate knowledge of tangled spheres, Jeffrey solves the knot, adding to the level of mystery and respect building around him in the racially divided town.
Cobble’s Knot is not only a powerful metaphor for the social problems that plague this fictional town, but it provides a sobering reminder that many of our social institutions and practices have become complex knots of ideologies, attitudes and beliefs. In fact, one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century may very well be to patiently unravel some of the complexities that have been handed down from previous generations, take a good look at the contributing threads and begin to weave together some new stories and some new possibilities.
The latest episode of the Teaching Out Loud podcast series represents an attempt to begin to work at the complex knot attached to thread of conversation around teacher compensation in Canada. The current practice of paying teachers according to years of experience and level of education is not really that old, but it is one for which teacher associations across the country fought in an effort to raise the standards for the profession and ensure that a stubborn male bias around teaching assignments and compensation was addressed. This took place in a postwar Canada that was facing a baby boom, the birth of the suburbs and a rather serious teaching shortage.
It was a time when the treatment of teachers was unequal, unfair and unpredictable. Our current practice of paying teachers according to years of experience and level of education was negotiated by teacher organizations as they became larger and developed a stronger voice. It was a response to what have now become foundational principles within the profession: excellence and equity!
The teaching profession has changed substantially over the past several decades. The threads of professionalism and equity have been joined by concerns over student outcomes, contractual requirements, test scores and the way that students stand in comparison to the international community. There is a sense in which, education systems around the world are more attuned to visible outputs than any other indicator of quality, and the profession has been forced into a way of being that is much different than in previous generations.
Two things became quite clear from the very beginning of my conversation with Joe Bower and Lou D’Amore. First, teachers don’t speak on any issue, including merit pay with a single, unified voice. On the one hand, Lou argues that our current compensation model is, in fact, a form of merit pay. Whenever we pay teachers for their education and experience, that represents a type of performance incentive. Lou feels that the money spent on pay grid increases could be better spent recognizing teachers who improve their professional knowledge and abilities.
On the other hand, Joe reminds us that when we talk about merit pay, we’re not talking about rewarding teachers for bettering themselves. Instead, it’s really about encouraging higher test scores. For Joe Bower, this is completely unacceptable.
Second, it became clear that it is virtually impossible to have a simple conversation about teacher compensation. There are no straight lines here. You start to talk about rewarding quality teaching, and you automatically open up a conversation about the criteria for quality. You start to talk about value-added assessments based on test scores, and you’re automatically drawn into a heated discussion about the inherent value of testing.
It’s a knotty issue, to be sure, and this may prevent discussions about merit pay ever really get much traction here. But I still believe that it’s worth trying to untangle the knot a little more.
I’m hoping that you will take the time to listen to Episode 4 of Teaching Out Loud and join in the conversation. This is certainly a discussion which warrants more than twenty minutes.
Here are some of the questions that emerged from my conversation with Joe and Lou—ones that, I believe, are worth some discussion.
- Is the current experience/education model the most effective way of compensating teachers for the work that they do?
- Is it fair that experience allowances for teachers end relatively early on in their careers? As Lou D’Amore asks, why do we pay a 10 year teacher more than we pay a five year teacher, but a 20 year veteran doesn’t receive more than a teacher with 10 or 15 years experience?
- Other than test scores, are there other manageable ways of measuring teacher quality or effectiveness?
- Does the current model of compensation actually stand in the way of professional growth?
- Should teachers be compensated for the extra things that they do in their professional lives: coaching, clubs, drama and music productions, etc.
- Would a model that sought to pay all teachers, regardless of years of experience or education, the same amount be fair and equitable?
- Are there non-monetary incentives that would encourage ongoing professional growth and development?